Family Life

Are We Screwing Up the Kids?

What if children actually did come with a parenting manual? If tucked inside your baby’s swaddling clothes was a step-by-step guide for raising your little one from infancy to age 21? Wouldn’t it be great? You could just flip to the chapter on kids and technology and follow along for the well-being of your child.

Well, joke’s on us. There’s no manual, and even if there were, the chapter on technology wouldn’t be there because it’s not available yet. This era we’re in where nearly 100 percent of homes have a smart device is one big grand experiment.

But psychologists are starting to see links between the overuse of technology and our kids’ mental health. Psychiatrists are seeing an uptick in childhood depression while eyeing the effects of social media and technology on children. 

Parents see children talking less with their heads down more. 

Looking at her three year old completely wrapped up in his iPad, a mom laughs, “He’s completely addicted!” and throws her hands up in the air, “but so am I!”

What do you do when your toddler starts making “gimme” hands for your smartphone? Hand it over, right? Yes, technology is fantastic…except for when it’s not.

Common Sense Media (CSM), a California nonprofit that studies the relationship between kids and technology, says an electronic childhood has “profound implications for parenting and childhood.” Chief Executive Jim Steyer, a dad of four, says, “These devices have great benefits, but the downsides are very significant; you’ve got all of these parents glued to their blanking devices, and so are their six year olds.”

The evidence is clear that parents with toddlers have caved into “modern” society’s clamor for more and more tech at younger and younger ages. The good news is, if you raise your kids with common sense and authority (consistent, firm and loving; being the parent, not the friend), you stand the best chance of parenting your child through the weedy world of what’s good for him and what’s not.

So you’ve heard that Bill Gates refused to let his kids have a smartphone before age 14, but here’s why: He knew about their highly addictive quality, and he wanted his kids to know the value of restraint and face-to-face communication. In other words, you’ll never ace a key college interview if you can’t talk to adults.

Nathaniel Clark, M.D., chief medical officer for Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital and associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science, says the right age for a smartphone varies by child, but that “as late as possible” is best. Yet parents give their 18 month olds smart devices and set up parental controls with little thought to the child’s capacity for it.

“Our brains continue developing until well after we reach age 20,” Dr. Clark says. “Particularly in the frontal lobe, which is responsible for both planning, reasoning and inhibition of impulses.”      

Ah, impulsivity. It’s why kids love Snapchat. Take a pic, write a comment with an Emoji, share it and poof, it’s gone. A 15-year-old boy (who requested anonymity for this article) witnessed a girl, age 7 or so, on Snapchat sitting in front of him at TPAC. He looked disgusted when he said, “She shouldn’t be on Snapchat. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. You just want to do it all the time.” A savvy 24-year-old blogger told me, “The problem is, kids are faster at doing things online than parents are. Even if parents think they know what their kids are doing, they don’t. That’s what’s going on. They can’t possibly keep their kids safe.” 

While technology is a huge source of pleasure, we also know it can be incredibly overwhelming. With smart devices providing that individual, deeply immersive experience, homes are sort of circuses with parents struggling to balance screen time with everything else in their lives.

Jean Twenge, Ph.D., is the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Dr. Twenge’s eye-opening generational research compares children born in the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s and later. She says the year 2012 (when those having iPhones went above the 50 percent mark) is the same year that kids started saying they felt “sad, hopeless, useless, and that they couldn’t do anything ‘right.’” Kids started describing feeling left out and lonely to her researchers, and Dr. Twenge saw a 50 percent increase in teen clinical level depression. 

Children who are given devices at younger ages means addiction starting earlier and human connectivity waning. 

You know that awful irritability you witness when you take the iPad away from your three year old? That’s what we’re talking about. The struggle of it all.  

According to Gabor Maté, M.D., the best-selling author and expert on addiction, when you put an iPad or other smart device in the hands of your chubby little toddler, you are giving him a one-way relationship; an indifferent, unloving, inhuman babysitter. Human beings must have human connections or they can become lonely, often deeply so. The iPad, iPhone, Facebook and all of the social media platforms promise connection, but it’s not there, Dr. Maté says. Technology provides a temporary relief from loneliness; when it’s taken away, the “pain” returns and so you need more.   

So think: If your child’s addicted to his device at age three, what are you going to have on your hands when he’s a teen? If Snapchat and Instagram monopolize your preteen’s social life now, what’s going to be running your toddler’s life 10 years from now? And another thought: before all of these social media apps, a kid could go home and not take the mean kids at school with her. On social media, they’re with her all day long. Parents have to be keenly observant when kids are entering puberty, going underground with their feelings and becoming experts at masking what they really feel. 

Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair wrote The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. To counter a teen’s feelings of being “left out” or judged, she says meditation can offer health benefits to help reduce anxiety and depression.

But what if your child is experiencing deep stress? Results from the 2017 National Poll on Children’s Health released last April suggest many adults think children today are experiencing worse mental health than when they themselves were young. If you think technology is to blame for making the world faster and meaner, it doesn’t take much to connect the dots for children. 

It’s important to work on your connection to them starting from a young age and to keep it going as they grow. This connectivity will help tremendously when the going gets tough in the teen years.

“If we have a strong connection with our children, we can help them verbalize what’s going on inside,” Dr. Clark says. Stress, in particular, he adds, produces the situations that provoke dangerous thoughts and the word no parent likes to hear–suicide. With the rate of childhood suicides on the rise, the medical community is initiating mental health screenings for kids in school now, but parents must also be on the alert for behavior changes.

“Smartphone addiction is becoming recognized as a societal, if not a behavioral, health problem,” says Dr. Clark. 

Say you have a preschooler and a baby on the way. You love your device, and your toddler loves her iPad. That’s OK, but Dr. Clark says you do need to incorporate a sense of mindfulness so you’re not constantly distracted. Your baby and toddler need you. “Mindfulness as a lifestyle decision has been demonstrated to be helpful in coping with stress, and there is evidence to suggest it can also help with depression and anxiety,” Dr. Clark adds. That means we need to pay attention.

“When we are not mindful with our children, or distracted by digital technology, we do two things,” says Dr. Clark. “The first is modeling that distraction is normal, even for the people whom we need to be attentive to. The second is that our children may feel unimportant. Infancy is a crucial time for developing a sense of attachment and stability. It sets the stage for how our children experience relationships in the world,” he adds. So, don’t buy into pop culture’s view that limits are old fashioned or that being authoritative with your children is the wrong way to go. Be the parent, and set clear tech limits for your children. “Say no to all screens for your child’s first two years, says Dr. Steiner-Adair. “Everything she needs to grow into what she can be is available from her relationship to you,” she adds. “If we can approach our children with empathy and respect, and can avoid being punitive,” Dr. Clark says, “we can often set good limits that help our children grow.” 

Originally published in Williamson Parent

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